On Friday afternoon, at the AWP Conference in Chicago, I'll be talking with a group of poets about the work of Thomas James, whose book LETTERS TO A STRANGER has been reissued as part of the Graywolf Re/View Series I edit, an inprint devoted to restoring nearly-lost books of contemporary American poetry to print. The book was first published 35 years ago, but it's remained a ghost presence in American poetry, largely because of devoted readers who kept teaching and talking about the poems. Here are three stanzas from one of the book's central poems, a monologue spoken by the "Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesoneh XXI Dynasty":
I remember how I died. It was so simple!
One morning the garden faded. My face blacked out.
On my left side they made the first incision.
They washed my heart and liver in palm wine --
My lungs were two dark fruit they stuffed with spices.
They smeared my innards with a sticky unguent
And sealed them in a crock of alabaster.
My brain was next. A pointed instrument
Hooked it through my nostrils, strand by stand.
A voice swayed over me. I paid no notice.
For weeks my body swam in sweet perfume.
I came out scoured. I was skin and bone.
They lifted me into the sun again
And packed my empty skull with cinnamon.
They slit my toes; a razor gashed my fingertips.
Stitched shut at last, my limbs were chaste and valuable,
Stuffed with paste of cloves and wild honey.
My eyes were empty, so they filled them up,
Inserting little nuggets of obsidian.
A basalt scarab wedged between my breasts
Replaced the tinny music of my heart.
Jemutesonekh speaks from the perfection and stasis of death, outside of change. In a way she's a figure for the work of poetry -- in which feeling, perception, thinking are given form and stilled within the frame of language a poem creates. To become a poem, to become a voice, is to last, if you're lucky. And the poems of Thomas James are proving to be enduring acts of preservation.
(Rigoberto Gonzalez, Tracy K. Smith and Mark Wunderlich will join me in reading and talking about Thomas James' poems on Friday.)